"Merry Christmas or happy holidays? Which strategy should retailers use to cash in? Here for a fair and balanced debate is Andrew Shaffer, owner of the Order of St. Nick [greeting card company]," FOX & Friends host Steve Doocy explained.
It was December 2008. The clock read 6:24 AM at the FOX News studios in New York. An early hour by anyone's watch, but it was 5:24 in Des Moines, where I was live via satellite to defend my "atheist Christmas cards" (think Charles Darwin in a Santa hat).
My fiancée had grilled me late into the previous night with questions we expected a FOX News host would ask a heretic, such as, "Where are your horns?" and "Why do you hate America?" It had taken a hotel wake-up call, two cell phone alarms, a Red Bull, and a gas station coffee just to pry my eyes halfway open.
Greg Stielstra, a Christian marketing expert, joined the conversation from the FOX & Friends set. Greg's position was that, by using "happy holidays" in advertising and store displays instead of "Merry Christmas," retailers risk alienating a majority of their customers.
This wasn't semantics; this was war.
GREG: Businesses play a numbers game. They carry the most popular products. They open their stores in the busiest intersections. If 96% of the population is celebrating Christmas, and 77% consider themselves Christians, why wouldn't you speak to Christmas as a retailer?
STEVE: All right. Andrew, what do you make of that argument?
ME: I actually agree with that. I think that if you're trying to reach the widest possible audience, that's a great strategy.
The atheist--I'm actually agnostic, if you want to get technical--and the Christian, finding common ground? The debate was over before it had even begun. I'd waved the white flag.
While "happy holidays" is meant to be inclusive, is there a need for it? As evidenced by Greg's own statistics, Christmas is already a secular holiday for many. Richard Dawkins, the world's most famous atheist, exchanges gifts with his family and loves singing traditional Christmas carols. "I am perfectly happy on Christmas day to say Merry Christmas to everybody," he told Radio Four's Today program.
Celebrating Christmas without subscribing to Christianity is like watching the Super Bowl without watching a regular season game. Some people watch the Super Bowl for the commercials; others watch it for the halftime show. NFL fans might turn their noses up at the party-crashers, but there are some spectacles so awesome you can't help but be drawn in by them. Christmas sits like a black hole on the calendar. Just try scheduling a meeting at work the month of December.
Maybe I'm just a bad heathen. Perhaps I should take offense at nativity scenes on city property; perhaps I should roll my eyes every time someone says that "Jesus is the reason for the season." But I'm an agnostic, not a vampire. I've never burst into flames at the sight of a cross in a school Christmas pageant.
While I may have waved the white flag, the War on Christmas isn't over. I may not be offended by Christmas, but I can see why others are. Christmas is aggressively pervasive. I can sympathize with those who feel alienated or marginalized by the holiday.
Still, I can't help but feel Bill O'Reilly's pain when the War on Christmas claims another victim. Whether it's a city council rebranding the town's Christmas tree as a "friendship tree" or a school administrator banning red and green decorations, I think the same thing: Can't we just back off? Baby Jesus has been through enough already.
Besides, as Prince Adam says in He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special, "Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but the spirit of the Christmas season is within us all. It's a season of love and joy and caring."
Adapted from "Frontline In the War on Christmas," an essay in my free collection of stories and essays, The Shelf on the Elf: Holiday Leftovers.